Thursday, October 30, 2014

Another Kind of Poetry

Imagine a poetry opera: seventeen poets presenting an array of poems that wove a tapestry of battle-battered, yet persistent themes on war, accompanied by a jazz band and a trio of singers whose wistful harmonies were bell-ringing clear and eerie as funeral hymns.

That’s the program the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival presented at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ, last Saturday night. Thrust into the daunting role of presenting the first poem in the 90-minute production, titled “Another Kind of Courage,” I nearly choked up when the band played a thunderous grand entrance fanfare, as I shuffled across the stage in NJPAC’s enormous concert hall. It was the startling opening of an evening of startling stories by war veterans and military family members drawn from the depths of nightmares and momentous, life-long memories.

Based on the thunderclaps of applause from the audience, this audacious opera conceived by Dodge Poetry Director Martin Farawell worked spectacularly. Among the interwoven themes were love and loss among soldiers, pride and prejudice in the military, and of course death, grief and mourning, with a recurring, raw-edged, still stunned emphasis on suicide.

The set list of poems included established pieces by acclaimed masters of modern poetry and emerging work by young veterans whose powerful poetry and performances were developed in workshops conducted by Warrior Writers and Combat Paper, the veteran-oriented arts programs that encourage plumbing the depths of “unspeakable” memories.

The eclectic cast included Dodge Poetry Festival featured poets Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, Charles H. Johnson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gardner McFall, Marilyn Nelson, Brian Turner plus—from Warrior Writers/Combat Paper—Jan Barry, Kevin Basl, Chantelle Bateman, Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, Lovella Calica, Hugh Martin, Jennifer Pacanowski,  Carlos Sirah, Jon Turner and Eli Wright.

Music was provided by the Tomas Doncker Band, which played pieces composed for poems by Komunyakaa and Jennifer Pacanowski, and the Parkington Sisters, who sang with the band, did a solo, breath-taking rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will,” and closed the show with a haunting melody they wrote, “In the Garden,” sung to their own violin and guitar accompaniment.

Another presence on stage was Jacob George, an Afghanistan war vet and folk singer who killed himself last month. His poem “Support the Troops,” published in a Warrior Writers anthology, was read by Chantelle Bateman, who served with the Marines in Iraq and with Jacob in peace actions calling for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other spectral presences evoked on stage included Gardner McFall’s father, who died on a Navy bombing mission in Vietnam; Marilyn Nelson’s father, who survived World War II and thrived in a military career but couldn’t quite shake the insults of racism at home; and Private Miller, a member of Brian Turner’s Army unit in Iraq who shot himself one morning—and, as Turner said in his poem “Eulogy”… “for this moment the earth is stilled.”

My contributions to this theme included a new poem, meant to evoke a lost army of missing soldiers and veterans.

Singing Out

How big would the war
Memorial wall be
If it listed all the names
Of soldiers who died of suicide—
Adam, Baker, Charlie…
Jacob David George
Three tours in Afghanistan
Jeffrey Lucey
Marine vet of Iraq invasion
Theodore S. Westhusing
Col., US Army
Who wrote in Iraq
“Death before being dishonored”

I couldn’t write about
The first Vietnam vet I knew
Who killed himself—
I couldn’t write about him
I couldn’t write his obit
Because newspaper policy prohibited
Reporting suicides

I didn’t know what to do
With that—that—that—muzzling

The second vet I knew
Who killed himself
Was found with a copy
Of one of my writings
In his wallet—
We cannot protect our buddies
We cannot protect our friends
With words alone

We need to change
Our apocalyptic, hellacious
Hell-bent, death-dealing culture—
Our flag flapping, sword saluting
Sworn to secrecy
Stiff upper lip, suck it up
He-man, iron man military mindset

We need to transform
The “death before dishonor”
Code seeded in our souls—
To singing out for life,
For a lifetime
Singing out
To challenge, to change
Our dancing with death

--Jan Barry

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Warrior Writers Reading at Dodge Poetry Festival

Warrior Writers poet Jennifer Pacanowski

A literary troop from Warrior Writers and Combat Paper will take the stage Saturday, October 25, at the 2014 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ.

The group will be reading in a featured event at 8:15 p.m. billed “Another Kind of Courage,” with performances by poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Charles H. Johnson, Brian Turner and others who are military veterans or military family members.

Warrior Writers and Combat Paper poets participating in the event are Jan Barry, Kevin Basl, Chantelle Bateman, Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, Lovella Calica, Hugh Martin, Jennifer Pacanowski, Carlos Sirah, Jon Turner and Eli Wright.

Selections of their work are included in a new anthology, Warrior Writers: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans, and previous works published by Warrior Writers, a nonprofit arts organization based in Philadelphia, PA.

Martin Farawell, Dodge Poetry Director, chose the theme of “Another Kind of Courage” to honor the transformational work that many veterans and military family members have made in turning anguish into art.

“Classic war stories often evolve around finding the courage to enter battle, but there is another kind of courage required of veterans and their families as they face the impact and aftermath of war: The courage required to acknowledge trauma; to turn with love toward those transformed and wounded by war, including ourselves,” Farawell said.

Warrior Writers is a veteran-focused arts organization whose mission is to give voice to veterans’ experiences, provide a creative community for artistic expression, and bear witness to the experiences of warriors through casual, welcoming workshops held at colleges, art galleries and other sites around the nation.

Combat Paper, a program of the Printmaking Center of NJ, holds papermaking workshops in which veterans turn their uniforms, memories and experiences into art. A Combat Paper art exhibition, “Trigger Experience,” is currently on display at the Morris County Administration Building in Morristown, NJ through January 6.

Poet bios:

Jan Barry, of Teaneck, NJ, is a poet, journalist and author of Life After War & Other Poems (Combat Paper Press) and co-editor of Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, among other works. He served in the Army in Vietnam.

Kevin Basl, an Army veteran of Iraq, earned an MFA in fiction from Temple University. He is a workshop facilitator with Warrior Writers and Combat Paper NJ, based at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey in Branchburg, NJ

Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren,  a Marine veteran of the Iraq War,  is a writer, poet and visual artist. He is included in an upcoming documentary about spoken word artists in the triangle area of North Carolina

Chantelle Bateman, of Philadelphia, PA, served with the Marines in Iraq. A poet, artist and writer, her work has been featured in the film “Out of Step,” Warrior Writers anthologies and the National Veterans Art Museum.

Lovella Calica is Director of Warrior Writers, based in Philadelphia, PA. She is a poet and editor of Warrior Writers, After Action Review and other anthologies of writings and artwork by military veterans. She received three Art and Change grants from the Leeway Foundation and was honored with the Transformation Award in 2009.

Hugh Martin, an Ohio National Guard veteran of the Iraq War, is author of The Stick Soldiers and So, How Was the War? Recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, he was the inaugural winner of The Iowa Review Jeff Sharlet Award for Veterans. He is currently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.

Jennifer Pacanowski, of Allentown, PA, served in Iraq as an Army combat medic. She is a public speaker, poet, playwright and writing facilitator for Warrior Writers.

Carlos Sirah served in the Army in Iraq. He studied Performance at Fordham University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Performance at Brown University. He is a playwright and actor.

Jon Turner is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and a humanitarian mission to Haiti. He is a poet, visual artist and director of the Center for Healthy Change in Vermont.

Eli Wright, an Army veteran of Iraq, is an instructor for Combat Paper NJ, providing workshops for veterans and active duty soldiers at VA facilities, military bases, colleges and art galleries along the East Coast from Maine to Virginia.

For more information: